Sta­ple­ton step­ping around fund law

GOP hope­ful not mak­ing his run of­fi­cial yet

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark K. Matthews

Walker Sta­ple­ton will inch up to the line of launch­ing his cam­paign for gov­er­nor this month at a pri­vate fundraiser where tick­ets cost as much as $10,000 per cou­ple.

But the Repub­li­can state trea­surer won’t make it of­fi­cial, and a key rea­son is money.

The longer Sta­ple­ton waits be­fore for­mally an­nounc­ing his bid for Colorado’s top job, the more he can help steer un­lim­ited sums of money to­ward a su­per PACstyle group that is ex­pected to pro­vide his ar­tillery dur­ing the cam­paign.

It’s a setup that watch­dogs said could stretch the lim­its of Colorado elec­tion law, even as it projects Sta­ple­ton’s fundrais­ing might — par­tic­u­larly to­ward his ri­vals in the GOP pri­mary.

And it’s yet an­other sign that the 2018 race to re­place Gov. John Hick­en­looper is likely to sur­pass spend­ing records in Colorado gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions.

The up­com­ing Aug. 21 fundraiser for Sta­ple­ton will be held at the Cherry Hills Vil­lage home of Repub­li­can booster Greg Maf­fei, and the host com­mit­tee is a who’s who of the party’s money class, no­tably beer mag­nate Pete Coors, Bron­cos leg­end John El­way and busi­ness­man Larry Mizel, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the in­vi­ta­tion.

The pro­ceeds, how­ever, won’t go into Sta­ple­ton’s cam­paign fund — as he doesn’t have one yet.

In­stead, the wind­fall will be routed to an in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tee called Bet­ter Colorado Now, an out­fit run by po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Andy Ge­orge, a co-worker of long­time Sta­ple­ton ad­viser Michael

Fort­ney at the Den­ver­based firm Clear Creek Strate­gies.

Steer­ing the money there helps Sta­ple­ton in a num­ber of ways — start­ing with the amount of cash that can be raised.

Un­der Colorado law, donors can’t give more than $1,150 to Sta­ple­ton’s of­fi­cial cam­paign ac­count once he gets in the race. That’s about a fifth of the cap on con­gres­sional cam­paigns.

But they can con­trib­ute as much as they want to Bet­ter Colorado Now, as it’s ba­si­cally a state ver­sion of the fed­eral su­per PACs that have come to dom­i­nate na­tional elec­tions.

Nor­mally, spe­cial in­ter­ests use these groups as a means to in­flu­ence elec­tions, but Sta­ple­ton is one of the first Colorado politi­cians to ori­ent an in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tee to­ward his own cam­paign. Its of­fi­cial pur­pose is to “op­pose Demo­crat can­di­dates for gov­er­nor,” ac­cord­ing to state fil­ings.

“Bet­ter Colorado Now backs can­di­dates who are not afraid to step up and solve big prob­lems for our state,” Gregg En­gles, a mem­ber of the host com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment.

And it’s al­ready tak­ing checks. As of June 30, Bet­ter Colorado Now had re­ported $123,000 in do­na­tions, in­clud­ing a $25,000 con­tri­bu­tion from Au­gust Busch III, for­mer CEO of the An­heuser-Busch em­pire.

More is sure to come af­ter this month’s fundraiser, where ticket prices range from $1,000 for an at­tendee to $10,000 for a host cou­ple.

The ben­e­fits don’t end there. Sta­ple­ton also is al­lowed to help so­licit money for Bet­ter Colorado Now — at least for the mo­ment.

State law pro­hibits co­or­di­na­tion be­tween gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates and in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tees. But be­cause Sta­ple­ton isn’t of­fi­cially a can­di­date yet, he can at­tend events such as the Aug. 21 fundraiser, where he’s listed as a spe­cial guest.

It’s for this very prof­itable rea­son that Sta­ple­ton isn’t likely to of­fi­cially jump into the gov­er­nor’s race for some time.

The strat­egy has its prece­dents. Sev­eral pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates took this ap­proach dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cy­cle, with Jeb Bush as the most no­table ex­am­ple.

The for­mer Florida gov­er­nor — and se­cond cousin to Sta­ple­ton — post­poned his en­try into the pres­i­den- tial race so he could front­load fundrais­ing for his Right to Rise su­per PAC, which ul­ti­mately net­ted more than $100 mil­lion.

One of Sta­ple­ton’s Demo­cratic ri­vals, for­mer state Sen. Mike John­ston, also is ex­pected to ben­e­fit from an in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tee, although the sit­u­a­tion is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

The group was formed af­ter John­ston en­tered the race, and so there’s a much brighter line be­tween his cam­paign and the com­mit­tee.

Still, its pur­pose is un­mis­tak­able: The group is called Fron­tier Fair­ness, which is John­ston’s cam­paign slo­gan, and one of its first big donors was Chris Wat­ney — who worked with John­ston dur­ing a past ef­fort of his to change how Colorado paid for ed­u­ca­tion.

Wat­ney and her hus­band con­trib­uted a com­bined $20,000 to Fron­tier Fair­ness, ac­cord­ing to state elec­tion records.

“I wanted to give at a sig­nif­i­cant level be­cause that re­flects the amount of my be­lief in Mike and his vi­sion for this state,” Wat­ney said.

An­a­lysts at the Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter, a watch­dog and ad­vo­cacy group, said they don’t have fig­ures on the num­ber of state-level politi­cians who are fol­low­ing in Bush’s foot­steps and cham­pi­oning su­per PAC-sim­i­lar groups.

But they said it of­ten doesn’t take long for na­tional fundrais­ing strate­gies to catch on.

“Gen­er­ally when we see things at the fed­eral level, they trickle down to the state and lo­cal level,” said Adav Noti, who served in the Of­fice of Gen­eral Coun­sel at the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion be­fore join­ing the Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter. “I would not be sur­prised if there were an up­swing in gov­er­nor’s races.”

But he warned the risks re­mained the same — in that politi­cians could be swayed by the un­lim­ited amount of money that can be do­nated to su­per PACs or groups such as Colorado’s in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tees, es­pe­cially when the can­di­dates are in­volved early on.

“When the can­di­date is ac­tively rais­ing money for a su­per PAC, it’s not even a wink and a nod,” Noti said. “The only wink is a can­di­date pre­tend­ing they are not a can­di­date. It’s not a wink-wink. It’s a sham.”

The ap­proach could in­vite a chal­lenge as well. The Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter filed a com­plaint with the FEC over Bush’s su­per PAC and also asked the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice to in­ves­ti­gate whether it vi­o­lated fed­eral cam­paign fi­nance laws.

An FEC of­fi­cial con­firmed the agency had re­ceived the com­plaint but would not say more about its sta­tus. A Jus­tice spokes­woman would not pro­vide an up­date.

In Sta­ple­ton’s case, there are a cou­ple of rea­sons be­hind the gam­bit.

For one, his sta­ble of big­money donors prob­a­bly will send a warn­ing to po­ten­tial op­po­nents, in­clud­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Cyn­thia Coff­man, a fel­low Repub­li­can who is weigh­ing a run.

One donor listed as a host at Sta­ple­ton’s fundraiser is Lanny Martin, who served as fi­nance co-chair on Coff­man’s 2014 cam­paign for at­tor­ney gen­eral.

The gov­er­nor’s field is one of the deep­est and rich­est in state his­tory, and be­cause of state donor lim­its, wealthy can­di­dates who fund their own cam­paigns have a huge ad­van­tage over their less-af­flu­ent coun­ter­parts.

The wealthy in­clude Repub­li­can Vic­tor Mitchell, who loaned his cam­paign $3 mil­lion, and Demo­crat Jared Po­lis, a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire who wrote his cam­paign a $250,000 check in June and has the means to spend much more that.

To com­pete, the other can­di­dates likely will have to pour a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money into the race — one way or an­other.

Ken Bick­ers, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Colorado, said he isn’t sur­prised by the ap­pear­ance of su­per PAC-style groups in the state’s fight for gov­er­nor.

“It’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon in high-pro­file races so it was prob­a­bly in­evitable it would come to Colorado,” he said.

For Sta­ple­ton, Bick­ers added, the need to put to­gether enough cam­paign cash prob­a­bly out­weighed the optics of do­ing it through an in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tee — an is­sue Bick­ers ar­gued was mostly of in­ter­est to re­porters and aca­demics, and not reg­u­lar vot­ers.

“They don’t care about all that stuff. They don’t care about when and how peo­ple raise money,” Bick­ers said. “They care about what mat­ters to them.”

The re­al­ity, he said, is that “it takes money to run an ef­fec­tive cam­paign.”

Walker Sta­ple­ton is ori­ent­ing an in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tee to­ward his cam­paign.

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